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Livre à lire : The sense of style by Steven pinker.

Livre à lire : The sense of style by Steven pinker.

In his book “the sense of style”, Steven pinker explains what’s wrong with our writings and what to do to make it better. He starts by explaining the very nature of writing. He argues that writing is not a natural act like talking but rather an act of craftsmanship. There is no better way to perfect it other than practicing. However, that effort should be accompanied by an efficient methodology.

The most import thing is to keep the reader in mind while writing. Ideally, a text is made to convey a message, and if the text does not structurally support the intended impact, it fails to be a good text.

He proceeds by giving a series of examples of good and bad writings while analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. He urges that the writer must avoid unnecessary wording formats as they weaken texts. Hedging for instance is an overused technique that detaches the writer from his piece, making him uncertain or too conservative instead of owning the text with all its ideas. Therefore, it should be avoided. For example, “I would argue” does not add much of a value yet it is widely used even in academia. In fact, it implies that you would argue for your position if things were different but are not willing to argue for it now. terms such as “relatively”, “presumably”, “so to speak” are also an example of hedging that are intended to stay in that position of ambiguity to avoid any face to face criticism, which, again, devaluate your text. As Pinker beautifully puts it “it is better to be clear and possibly wrong than muddy and not even wrong”

A good writing is the one which makes an illusion that the reader is seeing a world rather than a listening to verbiage. So those words should be as flued and smooth as possible to maintain that illusion. Elements such as clichés tend to break that flow since they push the reader to shut off their visual brain because of the repetitive exposure to those lines.

In a text, everything should be written with deliberation, nothing is for granted, and everything has a justifiable role.

The book does not tackle the fundamentals of language, but rather builds on it to take your writing into the next level. For instance, the sentence “she literally emasculated him” is linguistically correct however it fails to adhere to the proper use of the term “literally” which in this case is paradoxically used figuratively.

Another two elements that Pinker stress upon is using passive voices and nominalization with precaution. Narratives are meant to take the reader to a conclusion and passive voice, when used incorrectly; disrupts that rule, as it rushes to the conclusions without building up enough ground for the reader to follow. Normalization also results in parallel inadequacies since it thingify events and make them hard to decipher in that format. For instance, the following sentence “participants read assertion whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” Takes much more mental effort to grasp as opposed to “the people saw sentences, each followed by word true or false.” If efficiency is the desired intention.

To Steven Pinker a bad writer is not the one who does not necessarily know how to write readable and linguistically well-structured sentences, but the one who’s writing defeats its purpose, comprehensiveness. And the reason why comprehensiveness is not achieved, sometimes, even by distinguished experts and scholars is because of what he calls “The curse of knowledge”.

والطَّخَا والنُّقاخُ والعَطلَبيسُإنّما الحَيزَبونُ والدّردَبيسُ،
والهجرسُ والطرقسانُ والعسطوسُوالسّبَنتَي، والحَقصُ، والهِيقُ،
حينَ تُروى وتَشمَئزّ النّفوسُلغة ٌ تنفرُ المسامعُ منها
ـشي منها ويتركَ المأنوسُوقبيحٌ أن يذكرَ النافرُ الوحـ
ومَقالي عَقَنقَلٌ قَدمُوسُأينَ قَولي هذا كثيبٌ قَديمٌ،
ـكِ على العُودِ، إذ تُدارُ الكؤوسُلم نجدْ شادياً يغني قفا نبـ
متي، إذا ما أُديرَتِ الخَندَريسُلا ولا مَن شَدا أقيمُوا بَني أُ
ـقٌ درَى أنهُ العزيزُ النفيسُأتُراني إن قُلتُ للحِبّ يا عِلْـ
علمَ الناسُ ما يكونُ الجلوسُأو إذا قلتُ للقِيامِ جُلوسٌ،
في نَشافٍ تَخِفّ فيهِ الرّؤوسُخَلّ للأصمَعيّ جَوبَ الفَيافي،
ـظِ إذا أُشكِلَتْ علَيهِ الأُسُوسُوسؤالَ الأعرابِ عن ضيعة ِ اللفـ
مَذهَبُ النّاسِ ما يَقولُ الرّئيسُدَرَسَتْ تِلكُمُ اللّغاتُ وأمسَى
ولَذيذُ الألفاظِ مِغناطيسُإنّما هذِهِ القُلوبُ حَديدٌ،
poem by Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Ḥilli

The curse of knowledge refers to the fact that when you know something it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for someone else not to know it. It’s hard for us to reconstruct the state of ignorance we were in before we knew. Most of the time, a bad writer does not take in consideration that the reader is not familiar with the jargon, does not see what seems to be obvious to the writer and cannot visualize the scene in the writer’s mind. A good way to deal with it, would be going over your text multiple times not in the intention of adding new ideas but reformulate the existing ones to make it more comprehensible with the help of an outsider point of view.All in all, I find the book very rich with so many pieces of advice and recommendations that are backed with scientific evidences from theories, to experiments and analogies. I enjoyed reading it and practicing with it as I go along. To me the essential Idea of the book is that a good text is a comprehensible text. A text we can relate to. A text that attracts us so much that we can easily go beyond the dry ink. Reading this book reminded me of the 14th century poet Safi al-Din al-Hilli who argues that a good poem is the one that people can relate to, not the one that contains sophisticated terms and unrecognizable patterns that the listener fails to appreciate.

Morad El Bahloul

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